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Tired cat lying on a bed

The essentials

  • Kidney disease and cancer are common causes of death in cats — Early detection may give them more time. Acute kidney disease may be reversible, so it’s important to visit your veterinarian as soon as your cat exhibits symptoms.
  • Your vet may help advise on how much time is left — If your cat is dying, your vet can often help give an idea of how long your cat has left, or if euthanasia is advisable, depending on quality of life.
  • It’s up to you to decide what to do with your cat’s final days — While there are different opinions on whether or not you should euthanize your cat, it’s ultimately up to you and will depend on your pet’s condition.

When cats experience pain or illness, they often retreat and try to hide their symptoms. It can be hard to recognize a sick cat until they begin displaying other signs, such as loss of appetite. You should take your cat to the vet as soon as you can if their behavior changes.

The sooner you seek proper medical attention, the more likely that your pet will recover. If you do receive the worst news, there are some things you can do to comfort your cat during their last stages of life.

Signs your cat is dying

Among household pets, domestic cats live a relatively long time, with an average 12-18 year life expectancy. While many pass naturally from old age, there are many causes of death in cats, including common medical conditions. You should familiarize yourself with the signs of a dying cat so that you know what to look out for.

Kidney failure

Some have said that unless cats die from something else first, most felines will eventually die from kidney failure . While it’s not yet known exactly why renal failure is so prevalent, it’s important to distinguish between the two types in cats — chronic and acute.

Chronic kidney disease in cats usually occurs over many months or years and is a common cause of death in senior pets. On the other hand, acute kidney failure usually results from eating something toxic or experiencing a urinary blockage. It can happen to any cat at any life stage and can sometimes be reversed, especially if caught early. Symptoms of kidney disease include:

👉 Always take your cat to the vet if they display any of these symptoms. Urinary tract disease (UTD) closely mimics kidney failure but is easily curable with treatment. Call the vet immediately if your cat isn’t urinating or is straining to urinate.

Cancer

While nearly half of all dogs die from cancer, the diagnosis seems less common in cats. Even so, cancer is a leading cause of death in cats , claiming as many as 32% of our feline friends.

Some types of cancer are curable, but the most common type, lymphoma, doesn’t always have a favorable prognosis. Lymphoma often targets the kidney, liver, spleen, or gastrointestinal (GI) tract, and the prognosis depends on the type.

According to Margaret McEntee, DVM, a professor of oncology at Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine:

“Small cell lymphoma of the intestinal tract is considered an indolent disease, meaning it is much less malignant than other forms of lymphoma. Cats with this disease can be effectively treated at home with a combination of a steroid (prednisolone) and an oral chemotherapy drug (chlorambucil) and over 90% achieve remission of their clinical signs. Regular monitoring is needed, as these drugs can have some side effects, but most cats tolerate these medications well and survival time after diagnosis ranges between two and four years.”

Since your cat may live for over a year or more past their initial diagnosis, it’s important to thoroughly discuss all factors of your cat’s health, comfort, and end-of-life pet care with your vet. Depending on what stage they’re at, there may be a way to relieve your cat’s pain while prolonging their life for a while longer.

Old age

Eventually, if no other illnesses come for your cat, their body may slowly wind down due to old age. This is usually a gradual decline as they experience lower energy levels and possible onset of common senior problems like arthritis and dental disease.

Signs of an aging cat can last for years before a cat dies, so it’s important to seek veterinary care when you notice these symptoms. Medical advancements can improve the quality of life for geriatric cats. Signs of decline include:

  • Change in eating habits. Cats may refuse food and water for a day or longer. While a cat can live for days without food, they can only survive for a couple of days without water.
  • Foul odor and poor grooming. As cats age, their organs are less efficient, leading to toxin build-up and an odor. Older cats also tend to groom themselves less, contributing to the smell.
  • Involuntary movements and incontinence. Muscle twitching and incontinence can be part of the aging process for a cat, and all are involuntary.
  • Feline cognitive dysfunction. Like us, cats experience mental decline with age. Watch for changes in behavior, confusion, lethargy, altered sleep cycles, vocalizations, and other signs.

How to evaluate your cat’s quality of life

Accepting the truth is the hardest part of this stage. However, it’s better to honestly answer these questions about your cat rather than undermine their condition. Even if the answer isn’t what you hoped, there may be options to make them more comfortable or, in the best-case scenario, a medical treatment that gives them more time and a better quality of life.

On the other hand, confessing that your cat is dying may help you accept that it’s time to say goodbye and prioritize alleviating their pain.

Your vet will be able to best assess your cat’s quality of life if you can answer these questions:

  • Is your cat still eating? While cats can survive a week or more without food, loss of appetite indicates that they’re feeling sick. They may not be dying, but they need medical attention to find the underlying issue. Even a few days without food can result in severe complications.
  • Is your cat drinking water? Cats suffer more quickly and acutely from dehydration than hunger. If your cat hasn’t drank any water in 24 hours, it’s time to call the vet.
  • Are they using the litter box? It’s important to note whether or not they’re eliminating and where. Peeing and pooping outside of the litterbox can be a sign of illness, but it can also mean they’re stressed.
  • Are they still playing? Decreased energy ranges from not playing with the blinds anymore to not wanting to move at all—even to eat or go to the litter box. Your intuition will serve you well here since you know your cat’s standard activity level best.
  • Are they having more good days than bad days? This checklist from Laps of Love gives some good practical advice on how to determine your cat’s quality of life.

If your cat quits eating, drinking, and using their litter box, they are more than likely already in the last stages of life. However, you should take them to the veterinarian to see if there could be an underlying condition, such as an acute illness, that may be cured with prompt care.

It’s important to realize that a lot of animals — and humans — may experience a small rebound of energy shortly before they die. It’s not uncommon to hear of a cat or dog seemingly doing much better right before they take a turn for the worse. Sometimes this can be very upsetting in retrospect because your pet may have appeared to be getting better, such as eating for the first time in days or seeming more energetic. Think of these moments not as victories lost but as a precious last gift of time with you and your pet.

How to make your cat comfortable

Any time your cat displays signs of terminal illness, you should take them to the vet as soon as possible for an evaluation. Some causes of death can be prevented, which gives you more precious time with your feline friend.

Even if the prognosis is not good, there are a few things you can do to make your cat’s final days as soothing as possible.

Make sure they’re sleeping well — If your cat is in pain, they might have trouble sleeping. You can do your part in alleviating their discomfort by investing in a cozy cat bed that will support their joints and keep them warm.

Ask your vet about pain management medication — Your vet will likely prescribe medication to ease your pet’s pain and make them comfortable. If you have pet insurance, your policy might cover these medications.

Provide them with their favorite treats and toys — While we may have counted calories in their younger years, now is the time to sneak in all the extra treats.

Spend time with your cat, but give them their space if they need it — Some cats take comfort in snuggling close to your side, while others may prefer the solace of a quiet room alone. While you should try to be there for them as much as possible, try not to impose if your cat is giving you the signal to stay away.

Few things in life are more emotionally devastating than saying goodbye to a beloved pet. The Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement offers free chat and support groups to help you process emotions in a healthy way.

The last chapter of your pet’s life is the hardest. It can also be a bittersweet time as you reflect on the amazing life you had together and honor them as they prepare to pass on. While it’s a difficult truth to accept, realizing that your cat is dying helps you make informed decisions with the time that’s left.

Frequently asked questions

How long does it take a cat to die?

Depending on your cat’s condition and stage of life, death can come very quickly or may take several months. If they’ve stopped eating and drinking, you know their time with you is almost at an end.

How do I know if my cat is nearing the end of their life?

Lethargy that progresses to loss of appetite is often a sign that a cat is dying. Once a cat stops drinking water and urinating, they’re at the very end stages leading to death. If your cat suddenly becomes ill, you should take them to the vet to see if there’s anything you can do for them.

What is the last stage in a cat’s life cycle?

Once a cat stops drinking water, death is imminent. Many cats die from kidney disease in old age. Some causes of death are preventable, so if your cat suddenly becomes unwell but is otherwise healthy, you should take them to the vet.

Do cats pass away in their sleep?

Yes, it’s possible. Some pet parents wake up to find that their beloved kitty peacefully passed away during the night. Sudden death may be caused by heart disease or other unforeseeable circumstances. However, if your cat exhibits signs of distress, it’s not as likely that they’ll pass away peacefully. If your cat is near the end of its life, talk to your vet about how to ease their passing, including palliative care.

What to do if my cat dies at home?

Depending on your local ordinances, you may be able to bury your cat in your yard. Cremation or a burial plot in a pet cemetery may also be an option. As someone who’s taken care of your pet for years and also shares your pain, your veterinarian may be the best source of advice and comfort for you during this period. They may even be able to take the body if you don’t have a way to bury it properly.